NFL1000: Biggest X-Factor for Every NFL Team in Playoff Contention
No matter how well you’re playing when you hit the postseason and progress through it, you can be upended at any time… and without notice. There are few more obvious examples than a certain NFC champion that had a 28-3 lead in a certain Super Bowl, and it didn’t turn out so well for them.
In the postseason, pressure intensifies. There are no bad teams. There are fewer bad players. Everyone is scheming and playing at their highest possible level. If you have a weakness or two, you can expect them to be exploited.
The teams that would qualify for the playoffs right now each have their own issues, and there are ways to address them. Of the teams on the outside looking in, there may be flaws too fatal for playoff contention. The Packers, Bills, Dolphins, Cardinals and Texans have unenviable quarterback situations. The Lions and Packers have serious issues running the ball.
For the teams that seem to have the most obvious path to the 2017 postseason, here’s one X-factor each—the obvious issues, and how to solve them.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz's Health
Through the first 11 weeks of the 2017 season, there's little doubt that Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is playing at an MVP level and has shown great improvement in every category over his 2016 rookie season. From deep passing to field-reading to knowing when to stay in the pocket and when to run, Wentz has aligned himself perfectly with head coach Doug Pederson's offensive schemes and elevated his game to a point that he's one of the primary reasons the Eagles have the NFL's best record at 9-1.
Wentz has a very physical style, and this plays to his advantage for the most part. However, the number of hits he's taking both in and out of the pocket have to be disconcerting; there are only so many hits any quarterback can take before it takes its toll—whether through injury, reduced effectiveness under pressure or a general balkiness.
According to Philly.com's Bob Brookover, through the end of October, Wentz had more quarterback hits than nearly any other quarterback in the league with 47. NFL.com shows the Eagles allowing 60 quarterback hits this season, and that's just the ones Wentz has suffered in the pocket. Add in his 50 rushes—already more than last season's 46—and that's a lot of punishment for any quarterback to take.
That's not to say that the Eagles should radically change Wentz's style—he makes enough plays outside of the pocket and outside of structure to make the strategy valuable. But as the season continues, and into the postseason, it's something for the coaches to keep an eye on.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger's Inconsistency
The Pittsburgh Steelers have an 8-2 record in 2017, and they're currently the No. 1 seed in the AFC by virtue of their 6-1 conference record, just that much better than New England's 5-1 conference mark. The offense has been explosive at times, and the defense had improved over the last few weeks—specifically, defensive lineman Cameron Heyward is playing at a Defensive Player of the Year clip.
But if there's one thing that could upend this team in important games, it's the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has not been a consistent quarterback over the last full season. He wasn't consistent in the second half of the 2016 regular season and into the postseason, when he threw 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and he hasn't been consistent this season, throwing 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The normalcy to Roethlisberger's regression over a long period of time tends to fill a narrative that this is the player he has become.
In a general sense, Roethlisberger has always been a quarterback who plays outside of structure at times, but recently, there's been a scattershot quality to his throws—especially his deep throws—that prevent the consistent execution of explosive plays downfield. He missed several deep throws to Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh's Week 10 game against the Colts, and that wasn't the first time.
It will be up to offensive coordinator Todd Haley to scheme Roethlisberger into more visible throwing windows; Pittsburgh uses a lot of trips and bunch formations, but iso routes are still the order of the day most of the time on vertical routes. A few more crossers, switch releases and levels concepts might move Big Ben into less of a random mindset.
New England Patriots: Issues in the Secondary
Most players who sign with the New England Patriots from other NFL teams find a drastic improvement in performance pretty quickly. It's been the standard for Bill Belichick and his staff to optimize their schemes for the potential of their players for nearly two decades, and that's why Belichick's teams have proven to be the gold standard in this era.
However, the signing of former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore did not pay early dividends. Gilmore proved to be all too vulnerable in New England's zone and bracket concepts, and then he was lost to the team for several weeks with a concussion. Lately, Gilmore and the rest of the Patriots secondary has played better and more in sync, and a primary reason seems to be an increase in man-to-man and pattern-reading concepts. In short, the Patriots are trusting the athletes in the defensive backfield to prevent plays from happening with that athleticism, and it's paying dividends.
This will help Gilmore more than anyone else. In Buffalo, he proved to be an outstanding man/press cornerback, pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage and trailing them through routes as if he were the one running them. Fellow cornerback Johnathan Jones is also a great man corner. It's not as evident that Malcolm Butler is; Butler seems to thrive more in a scheme in which he's getting help over the top and in concert with other defenders. His recent undressing at the hands of Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders on one-on-one concepts is proof of that.
It may be that Gilmore and Jones are best attuned for outside coverage, and Butler plays the slot in the old Logan Ryan mode for the best results. What the Patriots can't do is go back to a system that worked for them last year with different personnel—back then, their cornerbacks played extremely well defending areas of the field and handing off to the safeties. Now, Belichick has cornerbacks who press, follow and trail, and he's making the most of it.
Minnesota Vikings: Getting Big Plays out of Case Keenum
When Sam Bradford fell to a knee injury early in the 2017 season after torching New Orleans' defense in their season opener, it was thought that the Minnesota Vikings would undergo a season in which their defense would have to lead the way. With Bradford out and Teddy Bridgewater still recovering from his own knee issues, it was on journeyman Case Keenum to set the offense on a path from under center.
Nobody expected that move to work as well as it has—through eight starts, Keenum is completing 65.7 percent of his passes for 2,194 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. He's more than a game manager, though he tends to stay within the relatively conservative passing game favored by head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. In this offense, it's more about limiting mistakes than spraying the ball all over the field and mixing mistakes with big plays.
That's all well and good, but when Keenum has opened it up, he's proven to be an effective deep passer. Against the Buccaneers' leaky pass defense in a Week 3 34-17 win, Keenum peppered the air with deep throws and was highly effective. Keenum doesn't have the strongest arm in the NFL, but he's learned to flick the ball deep with an efficient motion and decent mechanics both in and out of the pocket.
Moreover, in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Keenum has two receivers ideal for a deep-passing offense. Diggs is quick and smooth when running vertical routes, and he can win jump-ball matchups with anybody. Thielen is an excellent route-runner who can also blow past cornerbacks and safeties with his straight-line speed.
The Vikings are set for postseason success with that defense, but in the playoffs, you're going to have to make big plays in the passing game at some point. Keenum has the ability—and the tools—to get that done.
New Orleans Saints: Getting Pressure with Their Front Four
The New Orleans Saints have become the first team in the Super Bowl era to win eight straight games after an 0-2 start, and that radical turnaround aligns perfectly with a remarkable change in the team's defense. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore seems like a slam-dunk for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and fellow cornerback Ken Crawley has been a revelation. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has his guys playing with a lethal combination of aggressiveness and discipline, and all of a sudden, a Saints defense that has been terrible through most of this decade is a real plus.
The Saints also blitz a lot—according to ESPN's NFL Matchup, they've sent more than four defenders after the quarterback on 37.3 percent of their defensive snaps, fifth-highest in the league. That's worked well when the defensive backfield is fully healthy, but against the Redskins last Sunday, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins was able to take advantage of holes in the defense when Lattimore left the game with an ankle injury, and the Saints kept blitzing. Drew Brees had to throw two touchdowns in the last three minutes of regulation, and kicker Wil Lutz had to boot a field goal in overtime, to keep the team's winning streak alive.
It's not known whether Lattimore will be good to go against the Rams this Sunday, but if he isn't, it will behoove Allen to reduce his blitz percentage and task Jared Goff with more defenders in coverage. That puts the onus on the defensive line, especially end Cameron Jordan, to get pressure without the blitz—a task made more difficult by the fact that edge rusher Alex Okafor suffered a torn Achilles against the Redskins and will be out for the season.
This is the first test the team's improved defense has faced—without the ability to blitz with impunity, can they keep it up? A deep playoff run and a possible trip to the Super Bowl may hang in the balance.
Kansas City Chiefs: Recently Stale Offense
Through the first month of the 2017 season, the Kansas City Chiefs had the brightest, most multiple, most dangerous offense in the league; they looked like the team nobody could beat, and quarterback Alex Smith started to appear as a dark-horse MVP candidate. The secret to this success was a West Coast passing offense with outstanding zone-running schemes, and the addition of option concepts in both the run and pass. The combination of great rushing from rookie Kareem Hunt, Smith's deep throws and outstanding performances from the offensive line proved unbeatable.
As the season has worn on, however, regression has set in. Injuries to the line have been problematic, head coach Andy Reid has struggled to use Hunt as effectively in the passing game and in the red zone of late, and the team is relying on Smith to make stick throws into tight windows downfield without openings defined by motion—something that Smith has never been able to do.
After starting 5-0, the Chiefs have dropped four of their last five games. Sunday's loss to the New York Giants, in which the team didn't score a touchdown and both Smith and tight end Travis Kelce threw interceptions—was the nadir for this formerly great offense.
How do they get it back? By returning to the things that work. Make receiver Tyreek Hill an every-down threat as a moveable chess piece, especially on jet sweep motion concepts. Move Hunt from the backfield to outside the formation as a receiver. Stretch the defense with more than the silly Emory and Henry formations the team tried against the Giants. And with all that, Smith should get the more defined openings he had before the offense became more static.
Even with the injuries, Reid and his staff have the personnel to maintain the concepts they started the season with. It's time for them to adjust and expand.
Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota's Play
Through his first two seasons in the NFL, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota proved to all the naysayers who believed that a spread quarterback couldn't succeed in the pros that if the system fit, and the quarterback was adaptable and efficient enough, it could happen. Mariota was a revelation in 2015 and 2016, showing a processing quickness and adaptability to scheme that seemed to put him on track to be one of the league's brightest young stars.
This year, that's not happened. After throwing a total of 45 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in his first two seasons, Mariota has thrown just eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday in a 40-7 loss, Mariota looked as lost as I've ever seen him, college or pro. He was frantic at times in the pocket, he threw from weird angles and with scattered rhythms, and he was more accurate at times to Pittsburgh's defenders than he was to his own targets—that's how you throw four picks in one game.
It's not that the Titans have moved their game plan to a new series of ideas. In 2016, they ran more three-tight end sets than any other team except the Kansas City Chiefs, per Sharp Football Stats. Mariota benefitted tremendously from the confusion that caused with defenses, because Tennessee would make big plays in the passing game out of what's considered to be running formations. This season, the team has moved its three-TE percentage from 9 percent to 13 percent, which leads the league.
And it's not that Mariota is facing more pressure than he was last season. The running game is not as effective as it was last season, especially in the case of veteran back DeMarco Murray, who appears to have slowed a step in 2017. Perhaps Mariota thinks there's a disproportionate amount of responsibility on his shoulders, but his coaches need to make sure he's calm in the pocket and making the right decisions. Right now, he's shown more regression than development.
Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff's Rhythm
The 2017 Los Angeles Rams have been one of the most prominent success stories in sports in recent years. New head coach Sean McVay and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips have taken a franchise that had slipped into years of mediocrity under Jeff Fisher and turned it into a serious playoff contender for the first time since the Greatest Show on Turf era.
The most remarkable part of that transition has been what McVay has done with quarterback Jared Goff. Gun-shy and historically ineffective in his rookie season of 2016, Goff has become a better-than-average starter literally overnight, thanks to a better offensive line, more explosive receivers and a head coach/play-designer who understands how to give him the designed openings he needs to succeed.
Still, there are times when Goff looks more like a rookie—and one of those times was last Sunday, when the Rams were thrashed by the Minnesota Vikings, 24-7. Goff threw for just 225 yards and mirrored his issues from Week 6, when he was barely able to get out of the gate against the Jacksonville Jaguars' outstanding defense.
Against the Vikings, McVay was more conservative, aligning his skill-position players in more compressed formations. Goff was tasked with making more expert throws into tighter windows, which he did a few times, but there weren't the schematic advantages that have created easy openings and allowed Goff to produce with a play-to-play rhythm. If this continues, there's no way the Rams will go deep into the playoffs.
This Sunday's matchup against the New Orleans Saints will be an optimal test for the Rams offense. Against a defense that blitzes a lot and covers aggressively, it will be on McVay to give Goff the kind of game plan that gives him a sense of comfort and familiarity early in the game—and something that can transfer through to the fourth quarter.
Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey's Usage
When you select a running back in the first round, you'd better know how you're going to use him. When the Carolina Panthers took Stanford's Christian McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft, you'd assume that they did so because they wanted McCaffrey to do what he did in college—threaten defenses with everything from outside zone runs to short passes caught from motion out of the backfield to intermediate and deep passes based on McCaffrey's familiarity with the route tree and ability to use his speed to get open up the seam.
That has not happened at all. For whatever reason, the Panthers have run McCaffrey up the middle more than outside, and they've limited his routes to simple stuff out of the backfield. McCaffrey's production has mirrored this schism—he has just 206 rushing yards on 69 carries, and 433 receiving yards on 57 catches. High targets in the passing game, but little production to show for it.
This must change if the 7-3 Panthers are to stay competitive in the NFC South and beyond. They could take a page or two from the division-leading New Orleans Saints, who have always known how to use versatile running backs through the Sean Payton era. Payton had Reggie Bush at his peak, and it was his utilization of Bush as a motion receiver that started to force defenses to take their third linebacker off the field and replace that player with a slot cornerback. Now, they're using rookie back Alvin Kamara in much the same way.
The Panthers spent heavy draft capital for one of the most versatile offensive players in recent NCAA history. It's past time for them to utilize him accordingly.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Play-Action Passing Game
If the Jacksonville Jaguars are going to make it to the Super Bowl this season, they'll most likely have to do it with the same model that the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers used—a historically great defense and a quarterback who was asked to do no more than avoid mistakes. This season, Jacksonville's defense is that good, though we may be past the era in which a team can win a Super Bowl without an above-average passing game. The reason they might be tied to that old-school philosophy is that quarterback Blake Bortles has always struggled with efficiency and consistency.
This season, Bortles has been relatively limited in his passing tries, completing 184 passes in 315 attempts for 2,084 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Asking Bortles to do more than that would put additional pressure on the defense and running game, because when you let Bortles loose from structure, you never know what you're going to get.
However, there is a way to get Bortles the easy reads he needs, and it stems from the team's power running game. The 10-yard touchdown pass Bortles threw to tight end Marcedes Lewis in the first quarter of Jacksonville's 19-7 win over the Cleveland Browns last Sunday has happened before on throws to Lewis, and it's worth revisiting.
On the play, Jacksonville's offensive line fired out as if it were run-blocking, and Lewis blocked linebacker Christian Kirksey in the formation. Cleveland's linebackers read run, Bortles faked the handoff to running back Leonard Fournette, and when Lewis released from the block, he was wide open.
Play-action isn't the secret to making Blake Bortles a great quarterback, but it could make him above-average on a consistent basis. This season, that may be all the Jaguars need.
Atlanta Falcons: Offensive Creativity
With 7:54 left in the third quarter of their 34-31 Monday night win over the Seattle Seahawks, tight end Levine Toilolo ran from the right side of the formation through Seattle's defensive line, looking like he was blocking for a run. At the right time, and hidden from coverage because of his location, Toilolo released into the left flat, kept running and caught a 25-yard touchdown pass as safety Earl Thomas tried to run to keep up. The play was effective for several reasons—the three-tight end set had the Seahawks thinking run, Toilolo was an afterthought in coverage because of his original post-snap location, and as he was running from right to left, the Falcons had three receivers running to the right at different levels, occupying Seattle's depleted secondary.
It was an outstanding use of personnel and scheme, and it was unusual for a Falcons team that has been far too static in its offensive concepts both pre- and post-snap this season. The conversion from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian at offensive coordinator has caused the offense to regress—under Shanahan, the Falcons were more prone to the kinds of pre-snap motion that would isolate and exploit defensive liabilities.
This needs to happen more if the Falcons have any chance of defending their NFC title. Without formation diversity and route complexity, there's too much pressure on Matt Ryan to make the kinds of isolated throws very few quarterbacks can make. This play was a nice example of what Sarkisian is capable of drawing up. It's time to expand the process.
Seattle Seahawks: No-Huddle Offense
Saying that teams should run no-huddle all the time is a bit like wondering why the entire plane isn't made from the stuff the black box is made from. Offensive coaches realize the advantages of no-huddle in both hurry-up and normal tempos—they force defenses to keep base personnel on the field and force a smaller defensive playbook—but they also reduce offensive options and can end drives in a big hurry. The New England Patriots experimented with a high no-huddle rate a few years back but have returned to a more normal, deep-drop, deep-passing game.
If there's one team that should buck the trend, it's the Seattle Seahawks. That this team is 6-4 and still in playoff contention with a depleted secondary, almost no running game and one of the worst offensive lines in the league is a testament to the effectiveness and creativity of Russell Wilson, who has been responsible for most of Seattle's offensive output—and a great deal of it outside of structure.
When the Seahawks go to more of a hurry-up offense and avoid the huddle, Wilson suddenly has an advantage that his nonexistent running game and sub-par offensive line can never give him—he's then looking at more static, similar defenses from play to play, and this allows him to align and use his skill players in more effective ways. If defenses have time and thought to change their schemes against this offense, things don't tend to go as well.
Through mid-October, per Gregg Bell of the Tacoma News-Tribune, the Seahawks scored on 75 percent of their drives and averaged 11.5 yards per play when they didn't huddle. When they did, they scored on 17.9 percent of their plays and averaged 4.3 yards per play.
This is not a team that can rely on sustaining drives or play-to-play consistency. The Seahawks' only hope this season is to put the ball in Wilson's hands in as favorable a series of situations as possible, and if that involved a high percentage of no-huddle—as Wilson has said—head coach Pete Carroll should bend to that. He has nothing to lose by moving from a broken paradigm, no matter how unconventional the move may be.